Great players can turn an adverse situation into a positive one. Sam Bennett showed his intestinal fortitude when he needed it most on Saturday at The Ridgewood Country Club.
With the momentum clearly swinging in his semifinal opponent’s favor, Bennett, No. 3 in the World Amateur Golf Ranking®/WAGR®, found a way to defeat world No. 8 Dylan Menante, of Carlsbad, Calif., 1 up, to advance to Sunday’s 36-hole championship match of the 122nd U.S. Amateur Championship.
His opponent will be Georgia Southern fifth-year senior Ben Carr, 22, of Columbus, Ga., who defeated Pepperdine senior Derek Hitchner, of Minneapolis, Minn., 3 and 2.
Bennett’s road to the championship couldn’t contrast more than his Sunday opponent’s. The average WAGR ranking of Bennett’s five opponents thus far is 13.4, as he has ousted the Nos. 13, 27, 10, 9 and 8 players. Carr, who is No. 70 in the WAGR, has not faced anyone higher than No. 51 (Hitchner), with the average of his five foes being 1,306.6.
On Sunday, analytics will give way to emotions, momentum and nerves in the quest to hoist the Havemeyer Trophy.
“They say the semifinal match is the toughest one,” said Bennett, “but [the] job is not finished. I want to win it all. It's going to be a fun day, 36 holes. [Ben’s] been playing good, too, so it should be a good match.”
Said Carr: “It means a lot to be playing for the U.S. Amateur Championship. There's not any specific words that come to mind other than I just feel very lucky.”
Saturday’s semifinals were delayed 1 hour, 40 minutes due to inclement weather that rolled through the area just ahead of the scheduled 2 p.m. EDT start.
When they did begin, neither semifinal match disappointed the large gallery that came out to watch four of the country’s best collegians.
Bennett, 22, of Madisonville, Texas, who decided to come back for a fifth year at Texas A&M rather than turn professional, never trailed against Menante, who helped Pepperdine win the 2021 NCAA title before deciding to transfer to the University of North Carolina earlier this summer. But after taking a 2-up lead with a 4-foot birdie on the 269-yard, par-4 12th hole, Bennett’s game began to unravel. He managed to escape with a tie on the par-5 13th hole despite a poor drive, then lost the 14th when he found the left rough with a hybrid off the tee on the 415-yard par 4.
Menante, the 2021 and 2022 Northeast Amateur champion, tied the match by converting 12-foot birdie putt on No. 15. This 159-yarder has treated Menante quite nicely, as he has birdied the hole five times in six trips this week, including stroke play.
With the match still tied on the par-5 17th, Bennett hit what might have been his worst drive of the match, a block to the right that ended up in fescue near a tree. Menante, meanwhile, was in perfect position in the fairway. After mulling several options, Bennett managed to hit his second shot into a fairway bunker, leaving him 175 yards to the to the green. He perfectly executed the 7-iron approach, his ball stopping 12 feet short of the flagstick. Menante, in much better position, laced a 3 wood up the fairway just short of the green. But his third shot wasn’t executed well, his ball stopping some 20 feet above the hole to leave a challenging birdie putt.
Menante’s putt trickled 5 feet past the hole, and Bennett calmly converted to take a 1-up lead. A two-putt par on the final hole booked him a spot in the final.
“It was my match to win or lose from the get-go,” said Bennett, who tied for 49th in this year’s U.S. Open and was one of four amateurs to play the weekend. “On 17, yeah, that was tough. That's why we play, to be in situations like that. I had the mindset, it's nothing to lose, everything to gain. I was able to pull off a few good shots to close it out.”
Carr showed some moxie of his own against Hitchner, who was born in nearby Summit, N.J., and moved to Minnesota at a young age. Trailing by one hole after Hitchner’s winning par on No. 6, Carr never lost another hole, taking Nos. 8, 11, 13 and 14 to seize control. He nearly holed his 107-yard wedge approach on the par-5 13th for a conceded birdie and then converted a 50-footer on No. 14 for a 3-up lead with four to play.
A pair of pars on 15 and 16 sent him into the final as he celebrated with friends and family just off the 16th green. His mom, Leila, and brother, Sackett, are here supporting him, along with three of his Georgia Southern teammates.
Carr can become the second Georgia Southern player/alum to win the U.S. Amateur, following Stewart “Buddy” Alexander in 1986, who was then the head coach at Louisiana State.
Three years ago, Carr lost his father and to honor the late David Carr, he had a silver ball maker made with “4MF” (For My Father) in bold letters combined with a few stars to signify his dad’s nickname.
In fact, both finalists have lost their fathers in the last three years as Bennett’s father, Mark, last summer to early onset Alzheimer’s. He has a tattoo on his arm with his father’s last words to his talented son.
So not only will Bennett and Carr be playing for one of amateur golf’s most prestigious trophies on Sunday, they’ll also be inspired by two important figures who are no longer here.
Sunday’s 36-hole championship will begin at 8 a.m. EDT and will resume after lunch at 1:30 p.m. Golf Channel will broadcast the afternoon portion of the final from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. ET. Spectators interested in attending can purchase tickets here.
“I'm looking forward to tomorrow's match first. We're going to get that job done.” – Sam Bennett when asked about getting an exemption into the 2023 U.S. Open
“I was really nervous on [the first] tee. I almost missed the ball. Didn't hit it very far off the toe. I was OK on 2. After the plugged lie on 3 I was a little rattled, but the drive on 4 and the iron shot into 4 calmed me down a lot and making that [long] putt was huge.” – Ben Carr
“It's been tough to get through all the matches. I've kind of seen it all so far. My first match, I closed [Jake Holbrook] out pretty early, and then the next two went to the 18th hole or beyond. I just feel like it's given me a little bit of an advantage to be in every situation. I've just tried to talk very positively to myself and lean on Will [Wilcox], my caddie. But it's just self-motivation.” – Carr
“Even though I had won the [previous] two holes, it's like, just keep doing what I'm doing and just keep putting on the pressure. On 17 after his tee shot, I didn't think I was going to lose the hole. But I made a mess of it, and he did a great job getting out of the bunker, so nothing I can do there.” – Dylan Menante on losing the 17th hole
“It was an unbelievable week. Obviously, it stings quite a bit, and it's hard not to let that kind of dominate the other, I guess, five or six days I've been here. But still, it was all just a fantastic experience. I'm so grateful to have gone through all this.” – Derek Hitchner on his week
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.